This is how ventilators work and why the UK Government needs more as coronavirus cases continue to rise

Friday, 20th March 2020, 1:06 pm
Updated Friday, 20th March 2020, 3:03 pm

As Covid-19 continues to spread, the government is doing all it can to fight back against the deadly virus.

One way in which they want to do that is to ensure that hospitals have access to more ventilators to treat those who have been infected with the disease.

But what do ventilators actually do, and how do they work?

Here's all you need to know:

What do ventilators do?

Ventilators are vital for patients who are affected by severe cases of Covid-19 and other respiratory diseases.

Access to one could mean the difference between life and death.

Simply put, they allow someone to breathe who otherwise may have not been able to do so on their own.

They do this by pumping oxygen into the lungs, and removing carbon dioxide from the body; in essence they are an artificial lung.

But it's not quite as simple as that, and the machines also need to regulate airflow, temperature, humidity, and pressure; they're complex bits of kit.

Why do we need more?

The NHS has been sufficiently equipped with enough ventilators to meet needs over the past few years, but in the wake of the coronavirus, those needs have changed.

With a sudden surge of people suffering from the disease, demand is higher than ever before, and there simply aren't enough ventilators to keep everybody going.

The government is aiming to have "many times" the current number of ventilators; it's looking at aquiring around 20,000 machines as quickly as possible.

It's trying to do this by calling on manufacturing companies to up production to the best of their abilities, and by calling on engineering firms from all sectors to contribute.

"The fact the government is asking manufacturers to make a different product to what they normally make is unprecedented since the World War Two," Justin Benson, from the consultancy KMPG, told the BBC.

"It's a relatively complex piece of equipment with lots of components and a dedicated supply chain. So asking someone who makes a car to produce a respirator would take them some time."

Will it work?

One idea is to ask manufactures like Honda, Rolls-Royce and JCB to turn their attention to ventilators during the crisis, but some don't agree that this is a viable plan.

"It would take too long," Stephen Phipson, chief executive of the engineering trade body Make UK told the BBC.

"We already have companies that build other people's designs for them - everything from alarm systems to signalling systems for trains.

"These are the companies you need, which can place components on circuit boards, do the wiring, testing and assembling. Building cars is a very different matter."

Plus, in the making of any new ventilators, there'd be a maze of red tape for companies to navigate before they could be used.

It typically takes two to three years to develop and launch a ventilator, and the challenge is not a technical one, but one of regulatory compliance, according Craig Thompson, marketing chief of ventilator manufactures Penlon.

"Even if a ventilator used an existing design," he told the BBC, "it would still needed to undergo rigorous testing if made at a new site."

Coronavirus: the facts

What is coronavirus?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can affect lungs and airways. It is caused by a virus called coronavirus.

What caused coronavirus?

The outbreak started in Wuhan in China in December 2019 and it is thought that the virus, like others of its kind, has come from animals.

How is it spread?

As this is such a new illness, experts still aren’t sure how it is spread.

But similar viruses are spread in cough droplets.

Therefore covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, and disposing of used tissues straight away is advised.

Viruses like coronavirus cannot live outside the body for very long.

What are the symptoms?

The NHS states that the symptoms are: a dry cough, high temperature and shortness of breath - but these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have the illness.

Look out for flu-like symptoms, such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose and a sore throat.

It’s important to remember that some people may become infected but won’t develop any symptoms or feel unwell.

What precautions can be taken?

Washing your hands with soap and water thoroughly.

The NHS also advises to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze; put used tissues in the bin immediately and try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell.

Also avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean.

Government advice

As of Monday 16 March the government advised that everyone should be observing social distancing - avoiding unnecessary travel and working from home where possible.

Anyone with a cough or cold symptoms now needs to self-isolate with their entire household for 14 days.

The government has also advised against going to the pub, out for dinner or partaking in any socialising with large groups.

This has caused a number of closures across the country. Schools will close from Friday 20 March for the foreseeable future and exams have been cancelled.

The over 70s or anyone who is vulnerable or living with an underlying illness are being asked to be extra careful and stay at home to self-isolate.

For more information on government advice, please check their website

Should I avoid public places?

The advice now is to avoid public places and any non-essential travel.

Travel abroad is also being advised against for the next 30 days at least, and many European countries have closed their borders.

What should I do if I feel unwell?

Don’t go to your GP but instead look online at the coronavirus service that can tell you if you need medical help and what to do next.

When to call NHS 111

NHS 111 should be used if you feel unwell with coronavirus symptoms, have been in a country with a high risk of coronavirus in the last 14 days or if you have been in close contact with someone with the virus.

Sources: World Health Organisation and NHS